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Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber

Andy Borowitz. Avid Reader, $28.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-66800-388-6

New Yorker columnist Borowitz (editor, The 50 Funniest American Writers) delivers a quip-filled look at U.S. politicians who “turned ignorance from a liability into a virtue.” Claiming that “not so long ago, it was less than ideal for an American politician to seem like a dumbass,” Borowitz blames Ronald Reagan for showing, in the words of humorist Molly Ivins, “that ignorance is no handicap to the presidency.” (As governor of California, Reagan once claimed that plants and trees produce more air pollution than chimneys and cars.) But at least Reagan could memorize a script; Dan Quayle, on the other hand, “spewed nonsense worthy of Lewis Carroll on opium.” Borowitz also skewers Sarah Palin, who allegedly did not know that Africa was a continent. But the book’s biggest target is Donald Trump, who once suggested that Frederick Douglass was still alive and that American patriots “took over the airports” during the Revolutionary War. Though Borowitz’s inability to resist a pun can grow tiresome, he sheds light on the cultural and economic trends that gave intellectualism a bad name and identifies the political operatives—including Roger Stone and Bill Kristol—who facilitated the rise of ignorance. Fans of The Borowitz Report will gobble this up. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Worn Out: How Our Clothes Cover Up Fashion’s Sins

Alyssa Hardy. New Press, $26.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62097-694-4

Journalist Hardy debuts with a scorching exposé of how the fashion industry “works to actively cover up and perpetuate climate change and labor injustice.” With the rise of “fast fashion,” Hardy explains, new styles are marketed to consumers several times a year, while old styles are consigned to landfills. She also documents rampant sexual harassment, low wages, and poor working conditions endured by garment workers, many of whom are immigrants with no power to complain; the environmental costs of toxic dyes and synthetic fabrics; and efforts to address the problems through unionization, consumer education, and activism. One of the book’s most intriguing sections uses the case study of Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers to analyze how celebrity marketers help companies distract consumers from “nefarious labor practices.” Elsewhere, Hardy critiques companies for claiming that their products are organic or “environmentally friendly” when they’re only “marginally sustainable,” and discusses how subcontracting allows brands hide their dependence on sweatshop labor. Empathetic profiles of factory workers and others negatively impacted by the fashion industry bolster Hardy’s call for policy changes to counter the abusive and misleading practices she outlines. This will have readers thinking twice before they make their next purchase. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Burl: Journalism Giant and Medical Trailblazer

Jane Wolfe. Andrews McMeel, $34.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5248-7179-6

Wolfe (The Murchisons) does justice in this comprehensive biography to the inspiring life of journalist Burl Osborne (1937–2012), who during his career led both the Associated Press and the Dallas Morning News. Born in a Kentucky coal camp, Osborn suffered a bad case of strep throat at age six, wasn’t expected to survive his teen years, and suffered kidney disease, eventual failure, and frequent dialysis. He nevertheless overcame the odds and enrolled in college in 1956, where a chance question from a professor—“Anybody here want to be a cub reporter?”—sparked his career. In 1957, he joined The Ashland Daily Independent, which led to his job at the AP. He climbed the ladder, becoming managing editor in 1977 and being elected chairman by 2001. Meanwhile, his tenure at the Dallas Morning News, which started in 1980, was so successful it ran its city rival out of business. Photos and excerpts from Osborne’s own writing bring his colorful personality to life: he captured the nation’s attention, for example, with reports on a man in West Virginia who nearly lost his dog in a mine shaft but emerged “half laughing and almost crying as he carried his 3-year-old rabbit hound off the mountain.” The result is a moving testament to a consequential figure. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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When I Was Red Clay: A Journey of Identity, Healing, and Wonder

Jonathan T. Bailey. Torrey House, $16.95 trade paper (158p) ISBN 978-1-948814-63-8

Conservation photographer Bailey (Rock Art) contends with his troubled Mormon upbringing and relationship to the natural world in this meditative memoir composed of journal entries, essays, and poems. The author, who was shunned by his community and family for being gay, recalls painful memories of a 1990s childhood in which classmates intimidated him with concealed weapons and physical assaults. At home, Bailey found little refuge living with an anorexic mother and a father who demanded that Bailey renounce his sexuality or be punished eternally. In lyrical odes to the natural beauty of the southwestern deserts, Bailey details his turn to nature for respite with an emphasis on the ancient rock art he encountered in his explorations. He also, however, draws facile connections between his Mormon ancestors’ experience to that of contemporary undocumented Mexican migrants crossing the militarized U.S. border (“Our feet were burned red under these same soils... for the same sense of safety sought by migrants entering this country today”), often leading his reflections on freedom and religious identity to ring hollow. Though some fragments struggle to cohere, Bailey’s moving testament of resilience is sure to satisfy readers of nature writing and autobiography alike. Fans of Terry Tempest Williams and Robin Wall Kimmerer should take note. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Power of Plus: Inside Fashion’s Size-Inclusivity Revolution

Gianluca Russo. Chicago Review, $28.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-64160-642-4

Nylon columnist Russo debuts with an illuminating chronicle of the fight to make fashion more inclusive for plus-size people. He begins with Lena Himmelstein opening the first Lane Bryant store in 1904 and covers the formation of the fat acceptance movement in the 1960s through to the age of social media, which created new opportunities for plus-size women to connect with audiences and to find modeling work. The author describes recent episodes in the push for inclusivity, including how Michael Jackson’s death nearly torpedoed the first Full Figured Fashion Week, anti-fat remarks by the chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret sparked a backlash against the brand’s unrealistic beauty standards, and a viral open letter to Target led the retailer to carry more plus-size clothing. In roundtable interviews, advocates such as fashion blogger Kellie Brown and models Iskra Lawrence and Yumi Nu tell how they became interested in fashion and discuss their efforts to change the industry. Russo excels at weaving disparate events across the past several decades into a convincing narrative that traces the activism and halting but meaningful progress of the plus-size fashion movement. Fashionistas will be delighted. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World

Anthony Sattin. Norton, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-324-03545-9

Journalist and travel writer Sattin (Young Lawrence) delivers an insightful examination of the role nomadic cultures played in the development of modern civilization. Contending that nomadic groups were essential to the cyclical rise, development, breakdown, and regeneration of settled societies across the Middle East and Eurasian steppe, Sattin details confrontations and collaborations between “the mobile and the settled” in the early empires of Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome; chronicles the rise of Islam among Persian tribesmen and the expansion of the Mongol Empire across Central Asia; and explores the impact of colonialism and industrialization on nomadic societies around the world. Throughout, Sattin lucidly explains recent archaeological, linguistic, and genealogical research; draws vivid profiles of 14th-century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, Yuan dynasty founder Kubilai Khan, and others; and illuminates the impact of pandemic diseases, climate change, and environmental degradation on world history. He also makes a convincing case that the brutality of nomadic cultures has been overstated and that their virtues, including adaptability, inclusion, and respect for nature, offer valuable lessons for today. Enriched by Sattin’s evocative prose and tangible enthusiasm for the subject, this sweeping survey informs and entertains. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Coffee with Hitler: The Story of the Amateur Spies Who Tried to Civilize the Nazis

Charles Spicer. Pegasus, $29.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-63936-226-4

Historian Spicer debuts with a detailed yet unpersuasive attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the Anglo-German Fellowship, an “exclusive friendship society” comprising British aristocrats, politicians, businessmen, and military leaders who “wined, dined and charmed the leading National Socialists in Germany in the 1930s.” Classifying the group’s members as “amateur intelligence agents,” Spicer draws a somewhat murky distinction between their attempts to “civilize” the Nazi regime in order to avert war and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Focusing on Fellowship members Philip Conwell-Evans, a Welsh political secretary and historian; Grahame Christie, a WWI pilot; and businessman Ernest Tennant, Spicer meticulously details his subjects’ many meetings with Nazi leaders including Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hermann Göring, and Rudolf Hess. While Spicer reveals that Fellowship members passed valuable information on the inner workings of the Nazi government to British and U.S. officials, coordinated with anti-Nazi resistance leaders in Germany, and earnestly believed that improved trade relations and cultural exchanges could decrease the likelihood of war, he overstates how much “the socially gauche National Socialists... admired and aped the British elites” and underplays the “naivety and gullibility” of the Fellowship. This revisionist history feels like a bit too much of a reach. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America

Dahlia Lithwick. Penguin Press, $29 (368p) ISBN 978-0-525-56138-5

Slate legal correspondent Lithwick (coauthor, Me v. Everybody) takes an incisive if uneven look at women who responded to Donald Trump’s election by “upending their lives and their careers and their families to organize a new kind of resistance movement.” Theorizing that women have a “special relationship” with the law because it is “the most conventional way with which to effect radical change,” Lithwick profiles, among others, former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who was fired for refusing to defend Trump’s executive order targeting Muslim travelers, and Robbie Kaplan, a “Jewish, gay, brash commercial litigator from New York City” who won a $26 million lawsuit against the organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. Though the profiles are full of sharp observations and astute analyses of legal matters, Lithwick’s focus on individual attorneys and activists inadvertently echoes the “Great Man” theory of social change she thinks Americans are “too apt to succumb to.” Much stronger, if more depressing, are the sections she devotes to her own story of sexual harassment by a federal judge and her sense of complicity in upholding “the culture of silence in the legal profession.” Despite its flaws, this evocative study captures the power and fragility of the rule of law. Agent: Tina Bennett, Bennett Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin

Peter Orner. Catapult, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-64622-136-3

Pushcart Prize–winning fiction writer Orner (Maggie Brown & Others) brings his lyrical, mosaic style to the story of his own life in this gorgeous and contemplative memoir. Blending photographs, family lore, speculation, and literary musings, Orner’s nonlinear narrative weaves through elliptical reflections and faint memories from his 1970s childhood to the sorrows and delights of his adulthood. The poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa, for instance, becomes a salve in the aftermath of his stepfather’s death, loitering in Orner’s mind as he reflects on his mother’s grief: “We all go where love takes us, whether closer or farther.” Elsewhere, seeking solace from some unnamed grievance, Orner spends a day marveling at the crowded prose of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day: “[Her thoughts] connect like they do in our actual brains. Meaning: they don’t.” A similar stream of consciousness logic pervades his loosely connected vignettes, with certain recurring figures and dreamlike appearances of half-forgotten acquaintances. As Orner observes, “There’s no greater fantasy on the face of the earth than the linearity of time. Time only circles.” Likewise, when his fragmented ruminations loop back to a powerful impression or image or favorite book, the effect is like turning over a prism in one’s hands, catching vivid flashes of light at each angle. Evocative and erudite, this meditation on impermanence and its ephemeral joys is a gem. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Cloudmoney: Cash, Cards, Crypto, and the War for Our Wallets

Brett Scott. Harper Business, $29.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-293631-8

Journalist Scott (The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance) sounds the alarm on a world without cash in this trenchant if uneven account. The cashless movement is gaining momentum, he writes, thanks in part to the pandemic, when paper money was seen as a disease vector (in 2020 the use of notes plummeted by almost 50% in the United Kingdom alone). Scott considers the virtues of hard currency—including its tactile nature and the fact it doesn’t track data—and portends a cash-free future wherein government and the finance-tech industry monitor transactions and extract fees. Scott’s depiction of the invisible web that facilitates digital transactions is sobering: “Cash is a bug, jamming the emerging fusion between finance and tech, and given that those are the biggest players in our economic network, they are jointly pulling away from it.” Unfortunately, in explaining financial concepts, he often relies upon clumsy analogies that muddy things more than clarify them (global monetary systems are a “nervous system,” central banks are a “Giant in the Mountain,” and bad posture is a metaphor for “the passive element” of digital payments). And while he makes a solid case for concern, he comes up short on solutions. This one’s likely to leave readers wanting. (July)

Reviewed on 06/03/2022 | Details & Permalink

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